Attention, Filmmakers: Here’s How to Talk Sound Design

We recently got back the final files for the sound on Four Color Eulogy. This was the final step to having the film finished (not to be confused with “having the film ‘released'” – we’ve still got work to go to get there!).

A lot of filmmakers don’t understand just how important the audio is. You can have a beautiful film, wonderfully acted, and yet, if your sound isn’t right, it can really drag your audience completely out of your story, and they will not enjoy the film, even if they do not know why.

Like many elements of filmmaking, the best sound design is that which you don’t notice – it sounds so natural, your audience doesn’t ever pick up on the fact that you’ve done something to it.  The opposite of that is also true — poor sound design will be noticeable immediately.

As Dallas Taylor says in the article below from Indiewire, “The audience might not be aware of the sound, but they’re aware of the emotion it creates.”

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It is very important to find a good sound designer to work with you on your film, but it is even more important to be able to speak to the designer in terms he knows, and to be able to understand what he is telling you!

Here is a quick rundown of some basic terms that will help you communicate with a sound designer…

So everyone is telling you to hire a sound designer on your next project, but what does a sound designer even do? At their best, a sound designer brings an audience into your world — immerses them in your story — in ways that are often taken for granted, and more often underutilized. Maybe the best way to understand the basics of what a sound designer does is to understand the vocabulary.

Defacto Sound Studio

Here is a quick rundown of some basic terms that will help you communicate with a sound designer or — if you’re doing it yourself — help you communicate basic sound design principles to your team.

Foley: Foley is any sound that needs to be recorded and performed to picture, for instance, someone walking or scribbling on paper or putting on a jacket. Rather than pulling files from a sound library, these sound effects work so much better when you can watch a screen and perform the sound over and over again until you get it exactly right. Foley work is very precise. If someone is putting on a jacket, you have to consider the type of material the jacket is made of, how much force they’re using to put on the jacket, and with how much speed. The interesting thing about Foley effects is that you might not discern or focus on these types of sounds in real life. Your brain often filters them out as unimportant. But a good sound designer uses these effects to push and pull the audience’s attention around the screen. If you want your audience to pay attention to that man in the crowd who’s bending down to tie his shoes (what’s he up to?), use Foley effects to help direct their attention.

Train sounds at Rabbit Ears Audio
Rabbit Ears AudioTrain sounds at Rabbit Ears Audio

Hard Effects: Hard effects are often pulled from sound libraries. These sounds can be more percussive, like an explosion, a punch, or a slamming car door. Of course, all of these sounds have to be recorded at some point, but they can be synced and modified over and over again for multiple purposes. There are tons of sound libraries out there (some of my favorites are Boom LibraryHiss and a RoarThe Recordist and Rabbit Ears Audio), or you can start building a library of your own.

People Walla: Exactly what it sounds like, people walla is the generic sound of people talking. It could be in a café or before a concert or at a festival; but when you isolate it, it sounds just like “wallawallawalla.” Well, almost like that. People walla varies by culture and language. If you’re working on a project in another country, make sure to get walla from that specific area. It might not seem like a big deal; but trust me, those details matter — they’re what surround your audience and bring them into your world.

Cerebral Effects: These are the effects you’ll use to bridge the gap between sound effects and music — and the possibilities are endless. While all sound design helps tell your story, cerebral effects do the most blatant work. They’re emotional. When the big revelation happens at the end of Act Two, you might hear a cymbal scrape or roll. The audience might not be aware of the sound, but they’re aware of the emotion it creates. Cerebral effects are a shift in thinking: from realism to hyperrealism. Your decisions are based more off of how you want your audience to feel. The sun shimmers on the ocean, and you hear it shimmer, which makes you feel the shimmer. In a dark environment, something trembles or rumbles. You feel the darkness.

Keep in mind: the relationship between sound effects and the cinematography is vital. Often the soundscapes are based on (and completes) the cinematographer’s work. In the end, a sound designer’s job is to expand the frame, to make off screen elements part of the narrative, to make the edges of the screen disappear. The techniques above are just some tools of the trade. But great sound design is about more than just filling in sounds where sounds go. It’s about bringing an audience into your world and into your story. It’s about making them feel something (literally and emotionally). Sound design isn’t just a finishing touch; it’s an essential — and often overlooked — element of effective filmmaking.

Dallas Taylor is lead designer and creative director at Defacto Sound. His sound work has spanned television (NBC, FOX, Discovery), games (“Fallout,” “The Elder Scrolls”) and film (“Blood Brother,” “A N O M A L Y”). He and his family live in Washington D.C.

Black and white studio photo : Studio A at Shock City Studios in St. Louis, MO.

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